Struggling Oakland high school football players pay it forward

On the night before Thanksgiving, the football team at Oakland's Castlemont High is giving thanks and giving back.

What's remarkable is that many of the players are struggling with housing and food themselves, yet they're taking time to help others in need.

Instead of wearing helmets these players are wearing hair nets.

The backdrop is the school cafeteria kitchen, not the athletic field, but the camaraderie is the same.

"I can compare this to football because we're working as a team," says Jose Castellanos who plays safety. 

It's a bond forged by common experiences. The head coach of the Castlemont Knights says half of the players on the team routinely don't have enough to eat.

"Sometimes I go hungry for about a week straight.  Sometimes we have food, but I need to make sure my younger sibling and my mom eat first," says Jamal Abdullah who plays wide receiver and cornerback.

The 17-year-old tells KTVU he's staying with his grandmother for now.

"Me being homeless, me seeing my mom struggle raising five kids growing up. Yeah, very hard," says Jamal. 

Yet he and the other players say it was important to partner with a non-profit called Regina's Helping Hands, started by a West Oakland mother to prepare meals to distribute to struggling folks on Thanksgiving Day.

The Castlemont students are paying it forward after students at San Leandro High heard about their struggles and presented them with a check last month.

The team says others struggling deserve help too.

"I wouldn't wish that on nobody for them to feel that experience, what I felt.  I wouldn't want no one to feel that.

Not ever," says Jose.

These students say they too are the faces of the hungry. Often times, they are children from single parent homes.  

Still, they say the holiday season is about giving what you have.

"Sometimes,  you have to look at the things that are going good for you and just build on that rather than focus on the negative," says Jaden Starks, the team captain. "I'm thankful for my family, my teammates, and other people who support me." 

The players are preparing turkey, ham, and all the fixings to feed 300 people Thursday at West Oakland's Campbell Village Community Center.

The team is looking forward to Friday, when they are scheduled to play McClymonds in the "Silver Bowl", the championship game for the Oakland Athletic League.